RIVERDALE — From the moment graduation party planning began, Anna Hinckley knew where she wanted to celebrate the end of high school: Sam’s Club.
And so on Friday evening, surrounded by family and friends, pink balloons, and a few surprised shoppers, that’s exactly what she did.
For Anna, an 18-year-old graduating senior at Northridge High School with Down syndrome, the warehouse store has special sentimental value. Each Saturday, Anna and her parents make a weekly shopping trip to the Riverdale Sam’s Club after Anna finishes her Special Olympics bowling practice nearby.
"It's sort of our little ritual," Anna's father, Theron, said.
Collecting free samples and enjoying some post-bowling pizza are highlights of these visits, Anna explained between mouthfuls of said pizza at her party.
"I love Sam’s Club," Anna said, "because I come here with my family."
When their daughter first proposed holding her graduation party at the store, Anna's parents said, they were somewhat skeptical. They'd never heard of a social gathering held at a grocery store before, and weren't sure they would even be allowed to host a party there.
But Anna had made up her mind. She was having her graduation party at Sam's Club.
So her mother, Jill Hinckley, reached out to the store —and the request was met with enthusiasm. Store management told the family they would be happy to host the party, supplying food, cake, decorations, and a television to display a slideshow of photos of Anna over the years.
After sending out party invitations, Jill Hinckley said she received a slew of bewildered responses. Sam's Club?
“I said, ‘What can I say?’” Jill Hinckley recalled with a laugh. “‘She loves Sam’s Club.’”
The night before the party, Anna had collected her diploma at Northridge High School's graduation. She graduated with not only high honors, but a starring role under her belt: She recently played Ursula in her high school's production of "The Little Mermaid."
Next up, Anna is headed to the Vista Education Center in Farmington. She also wants to go on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, like her brothers did before her, Theron Hinckley said.
For the Hinckleys, seeing their daughter walk across the stage on Thursday was especially meaningful. When Anna was 1 1/2 years old, she was diagnosed with leukemia, resulting in nearly a year of treatment and chemotherapy.
On Friday, they watched as their daughter laughed, danced and sang along to Jason Mraz and Wham!, surrounded by friends, teachers and relatives. Earlier in the evening, she'd greeted her guests and other shoppers at the front of the store, wearing her high honors graduation ribbons over a Sam's Club vest.
“This is amazing!” Anna declared, beaming, between songs.
Performing comes naturally to Anna, her marketing teacher, Brent McKnight said. He fondly recalled a recent class in which Anna volunteered to get up and make a presentation in front of her classmates six separate times. “They just love her,” McKnight said of Anna’s peers.
McKnight does, too.
“This is hard for me,” he said, adding, “I’d say she’s just about the closest thing to a perfect person I’ve met.”